A pair of rare barn owls at an  Ellesmere Port nature reserve  have raised a brood of four  chicks, bucking the trend in an  otherwise disastrous year for  the species.

The owls nested in a purpose-built box at Cheshire Wildlife  Trust’s Gowy Meadows site – the  nature charity’s largest reserve at  165 hectares – managed in partnership with Essar Oil UK which  operates the adjacent Stanlow Refinery.

The surprise large brood comes  as the Broxton Barn Owl Group,  who monitor owls in the area, have  recorded the worst ever year for  the species.

Neil Friswell, chair of Cheshire  Wildlife Trust’s conservation committee, said: “We’ve seen a dramatic drop in numbers this year,  perhaps the worst ever season  within the recording area.

“A combination of a wet end to the  breeding season last year affecting  fledgling barn owls, and the long,  protracted winter which extended  right into April this spring, has  probably led to so many empty  nests.”

Last year, there were 225 confirmed breeding sites for barn owls  across the Cheshire region, with  around 600 young barn owls noted  by local observers from 200 of the  nests, up on the previous record of  151 breeding sites in 2007.

The region’s barn owl population  has been massively boosted by the  installation of nesting boxes by  local barn owl groups across the  county, and artificial nest sites now  account for the majority of the  Cheshire population.

It’s also hoped that habitat management at sites like Gowy Meadows, where Cheshire Wildlife Trust  is working in partnership with the  Environment Agency to create a  ‘Living Landscape’, will allow barn  owls and other species to flourish.

Richard Gardner, the Trust’s Living Landscape Manager said: “This is extremely heartening news from our largest nature reserve, and hopefully demonstrates that when we’re able to favourably manage the right habitats, iconic species like the barn owl can do well.

“It’s vital though that we continue to build on our Living Landscape across as wide an area as possible, as there will only be long-term  benefits to species like the barn owl if the right habitat ‘corridors’ are in place, so wildlife can adapt to the challenges of weather and climate.

“The work of local barn owl groups remains critical to the ongoing recovery of the species, and hopefully with their support, the owls will bounce back across Cheshire with a better season next year.”

Barn owls rely on a good supply of small mammal prey of voles and mice, and struggle with extended wet periods, which limits their ability to hunt successfully. They also regularly fall victim to collisions with trucks, due to their low flight over roadside hedgerows.

A Chester farmer within the Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape scheme, Huw Rowlands at Grange Farm, Mickle Trafford, is hoping to reduce barn owl collisions by extending the height of his hedgerows next the A56 in the hope of encouraging the owls to pass up and over the majority of high-sided vehicles using the road.